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Dexter: The Final Season

Dexter is going to die. How do you say goodbye to a serial killer fans have come to love? Very carefully.

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The vigilante serial killer’s car has flown off a road and splash-landed in a murky lake. He’s slumped unconscious against his seat belt. The car sinks; the waters close over his head. The vehicle slowly descends into darkness…

Since we first met the homicidal Miami blood-spatter analyst Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) seven years ago, he’s killed 125 people. His victims were largely murderers who deserved his wrath, so we improbably cheered his ceremonial kill-room executions. He’s a monster, sure, but he’s our monster — taking out the city’s trash and dumping it in the ocean. But there have been mounting innocent casualties, too: those who got too close to Dexter’s secret and paid with their lives, including his own wife and, most recently, his boss. Now Dexter Morgan is arguably no longer a hero, or even an antihero. You could say he’s just another killer covering his tracks. So maybe he’s earned this watery grave?

But then: hands appear, pulling Dexter from the car and back up to the surface. His sister, Debra, drags his body to the shore and presses her mouth onto his, breathing life back into him. It’s odd that she rescues him — because she’s the one who tried to kill him in the first place. ”It’s like she’s saving a part of herself,” explains Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Debra, in between takes. ”Her family would die with Dexter. At her core, she still needs him.”

Debra and Dexter’s dependence on each other is a central thread in the Showtime hit’s eighth and final season, which for the first time premieres in the summer (June 30) instead of the fall. The earlier date — targeted so Dexter could help launch the Liev Schreiber drama Ray Donovan — has piled on even more pressure for Dexter‘s creative team, who were already facing the formidable task of designing a thrilling final chapter for such a uniquely amoral character. But key story components of Dexter’s swan song have been in the works for years, and longtime executive producer Sara Colleton, who first brought Jeff Lindsay’s novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter to Showtime in 2005, promises that the team is on track for an impressive finish. ”[The faster schedule] has accelerated everything, but we’re in the groove,” she says. ”We want to go out on the high note and not feel we’ve overstayed our welcome. If Dexter’s series-long quest has been to be human, that comes at a cost — and this year he is going to find out that cost.”

So Dexter may not wind up at the bottom of a lake this season…but he might wish he had.

For the record: We do not know how Dexter will end. But we do know that the producers and Hall himself are confident the series will finish strong. This is unusual. In the post-Sopranos and –Lost era, writers on dramas regularly have anxiety attacks over their finales. Just imagine: You can spend years crafting 100 entertaining hours of television beloved by millions, and if the final minutes have fans ranting on Twitter, it can taint your show’s legacy forever.

”It feels like the exact ending we should be doing,” says showrunner Scott Buck. ”Ideally it will make our audience sit back and see Dexter a little more clearly than before. It should absolutely make sense to everybody watching it.” Or as Colleton bluntly puts it: ”It won’t feel like a ‘What the f—?’… We know we have the right ending, we just have to execute it correctly.” Hall offers a slow, sly smile when asked about the show’s final episode, like he has a naughty secret that he’s eager to share. Instead he says simply, ”I’m pleased. I’m intrigued and compelled about where things are headed.”

The premiere picks up six months after the finale, when Debra, an ultra-ethical police lieutenant, made the soul-shattering decision to kill her captain, Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez), to protect her serial-killing brother. Debra, who goes to even darker places this year, has quit Miami Metro and works for a private eye (Sean Patrick Flanery) while spurning Dexter’s attempts to rekindle their relationship. Enter Dr. Evelyn Vogel (Charlotte Rampling), a psychiatrist with a secret: Decades ago she helped Dexter’s father write the Code that he’s used to manage his psychotic impulses — that is, he can only slay people who are proven murderers. Now she’s being stalked by a mysterious killer and wants Dexter’s help. ”Dexter is a bit of a guinea pig,” Rampling says. ”He’s possibly one of her success stories if you think the Code is acceptable.”

In addition to meeting his maker (at least figuratively), Dexter will contend with the return of his twisted love interest, the poisonous florist Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski), who escaped from prison last season after Dex turned her in. But is Hannah coming back for romance, revenge — or both? ”She’s definitely going to shake things up in Dexter’s life, more so than last time,” Strahovski promises. If all that wasn’t enough drama on Dexter’s plate, he and his Miami Metro team will have to hunt down this season’s Big Bad, a killer who leaves his victims’ bodies with pieces of their brains missing (the perp is dubbed, of course, the Brain Surgeon). And our sociopathic protagonist must handle it all without the support of his sister. ”For the first time, the person who’s always revered and looked up to him is turning her back on him, and that’s sent him into a spiral,” says Hall, who also makes his directorial debut this season. ”His compartmentalized and controlled world is one where all the lines are now blurred and a sense of control is pretty elusive.” Enthuses Showtime entertainment president David Nevins: ”[The producers] have great stuff for this season that’s going to bring together a lot of different threads that fans are wanting answers on, and some threads that are underneath the show that need resolution, like: What does it mean to be a psychopath? What is Dexter’s true nature?”

Deciding when to end the series was trickier than how. Dexter is Showtime’s most popular and profitable show, and ratings have risen every year, peaking last fall with an average of 6.1 million viewers across all of the network’s platforms. ”It’s pretty incredible for a show in its seventh season to have those types of ratings gains,” says Showtime chairman and CEO Matt Blank. ”We have benefited substantially.” Creatively, however, Dexter hit a rough patch in season 6, which fans regard as its weakest outing. The show’s tropes felt tired, Dexter was goofy (one word: Nebraska), and his main adversaries — the Doomsday Killers — were a pair of unconvincing apocalypse nuts who were unmasked as the same person with a split personality (sort of). Near the end of the season, writers revealed two major game-changing twists to jolt the drama: Debra admitted to having sexual feelings for her nonbiological brother (fans gagged) and then discovered in the season’s final seconds that he’s a serial killer (fans gasped).

Deb’s creepy confession upset Carpenter, but not because she agreed with fans who thought it was out of character (or were riled up that it came less than a year after Hall and Carpenter, who married in 2008, announced their split). The actress says Debra’s carnal brotherly love has been a part of her performance ”from day one,” but she wanted it to remain private. ”It’s important to come up with a secret for a character that you don’t tell anybody about,” she says. ”And that was mine. She was crushing on his mind and his mystique.”

Having Debra discover her brother’s ”Dark Passenger” (Dexter’s nickname for his need to kill) was always planned as the show’s beginning-of-the-end chess move, and producers say it was in the works before its sixth season began. From there, the rough-draft strategy was to produce two more seasons, though the network was open to more Dexter beyond that. ”Everybody does want us to continue,” says Colleton. ”But I know Michael feels the way I do, that the legacy of the show is the most important.” Showtime executives say they’re now fully on board with the plan to end the show. ”Of course I would have been happy for it to continue, but I never tried to push them off their creative direction,” Nevins says. The fact that Hall signed a two-year contract near the end of 2011 also helped ensure the timing. One insider says the actor wouldn’t do another season ”if Showtime backed up a Brink’s truck full of money to his house.” But when asked about the accuracy of that declaration, Hall demurs: ”I don’t know that I ever said that exact statement. I’ve been an advocate for having a dialogue with the writers and having a sense of how to best bring this story home.”

Carpenter too is ready to move on, and hopes to find a less intense future TV role, perhaps even on a comedy. ”I wanted it to be the final season and I want it to be great,” she says. ”I want us to protect the legacy of this show.” She says she doesn’t know Debra’s fate, but has an opinion: ”I want the character to die. Every actor has to shed their character, shake the ghost off. For my own well-being, I need this story to have an ending.”

Dexter‘s supporting cast is less enthusiastic about having to find new gigs, as is often the case when a show wraps up. David Zayas says he felt ”sadness” about the decision, and hopes his good-hearted Sergeant Batista — who scraps his retirement plans in the wake of LaGuerta’s death — can maintain his temper if he learns Dexter’s true nature. James Remar, who returns as Dex’s long-gone father/moral compass, Harry Morgan, notes, ”I’m not happy seeing it end. We formed a beautiful family here.” Echoes C.S. Lee, whose pervy forensic investigator Vince Masuka gets a personal life this season: ”It would be nice to go another year or so.”

But all things must end, as anybody working on a series as death-soaked as Dexter must realize. Though to hear Colleton tell it, the show isn’t only about crime and serial killers and such morbid things. Shhh — don’t tell anyone: Dexter is also a love story, of sorts, between two siblings. As Dex noted in the show’s very first episode, if he could have feelings for anyone, it would be Deb. ”Some of the greatest loves,” Colleton says, ”are the unrequited ones.”

Back on the set, Hall and Carpenter come across as each other’s emotional counter-weights. He’s pragmatic and ”no problem” capable, coolly dumping a bottle of water over his head when asked to get wet for a shot, then putting on his producer’s hat to voice concern about civilians witnessing the scene. ”Spoiler alert,” he deadpans. ”Kind of a sensitive story point.” Hall’s so analytical he can seem almost detached — asked how he feels about Dexter ending, he lists what he might someday feel after the show concludes, as if browsing a menu of potential emotions: ”I think there will be some wistfulness, some relief, some pride, some sadness…”

While Hall can switch-flip into character for the camera, Carpenter’s relationship with Debra is more akin to a possession. ”I work with this character from a very emotional place,” she says. Their different approaches to the work are evident when talking about a dream sequence Carpenter and Hall shot recently, involving a flashback to last year’s finale in the shipping container. Instead of shooting LaGuerta, in the dream Deb kills her brother, and for Carpenter it was ”a hard place to be for hours,” whereas Hall shrugged off his character getting ”killed”: ”It was fun. Takes me back to playing around in the backyard as a kid — ‘Oh, you got me!”’

Though Hall runs cool and Carpenter runs hot, the two behave as chummily affectionate friends on set; there’s scant evidence to a casual observer of any fallout from their divorce. It’s a bond that comes in handy during tough shoots, like on the final day at the swampy lake. They’re finishing the scene where Debra rescues Dexter. Daylight’s fading. The crew is moving quickly. Hall and Carpenter are in the water, while the cameras are back on the shore, filming from a distance. The actors take a deep breath, grab ahold of each other, and go under. The lake is opaque. We cannot see the couple, yet we know they’re down there — two stars, clinging to each other in the cold darkness. The heart and mind of a show taking its final breath.

Dexter‘s Big Bads From Best to Worst

THE BAY HARBOR BUTCHER In the riveting, format-breaking season 2, the Big Bad was Dexter himself, as hostile colleague Sergeant Doakes (Erik King) and FBI bloodhound Special Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine) closed in with every hour.

THE TRINITY KILLER John Lithgow chewed scenery as season 4’s sadistic Trinity Killer, who liked to bleed out his victims while cradling them in a bathtub (shudder). The finale’s reveal that Trinity killed Dexter’s wife, Rita (Julie Benz), is the show’s biggest shocker to date.

THE ICE TRUCK KILLER Based on Jeff Lindsay’s first Dexter novel, the debut season gradually established the show’s mix of tension and humor as Dex tracked a perfectionistic killer (Christian Camargo) who turned out to be his long-lost biological brother.

ISAAK SIRKO In season 7, Dexter sparred with the suavely vengeful and surprisingly sympathetic Russian mobster Isaak Sirko (Ray Stevenson), who had it in for the Miami Metro blood expert after he killed Sirko’s colleague (and secret gay lover).

BARREL GIRL GANG Season 5’s Tony Robbins-style motivational speaker (Jonny Lee Miller) with a thrill-kill cult should have been more fun. But in the wake of Rita’s death, Dex focused on gloomily bonding with traumatized victim Lumen Pierce (Julia Stiles).

THE SKINNER The Big Bad was a Big Yawn — a bland killer landscaper (Jesse Borrego) unveiled late in season 3 — while a murderous prosecutor (Jimmy Smits) pestered Dex for an unlikely friendship.

THE DOOMSDAY KILLERS Dex hunted apocalypse obsessives (Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks) — but one was imaginary! — who created religious tableaux using bodies. Only Deb’s discovery of her brother’s secret in the finale saved this mess of a sixth season.